Earth has experienced many tectonic plate collisions throughout its history. By far the most dramatic collision began 50 million years ago and continues to this day between Asia and the Indian subcontinent (see figure 1)1. Currently, the Indian subcontinent moves 5 centimeters per year in a northeasterly direction and, so far, has pushed a little more than 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) into the Eurasian plate.
As I explain in my book Improbable Planet, this tectonic event established crucial conditions for human civilization and a global population 7 billion strong2. In particular, the collision caused cooling effects that help counter the Sun’s increasing luminosity and establish an ice age cycle. Today, the Sun is brighter than it has ever been in life’s history. It is so bright that Earth should not have any ice at all. That Earth possesses just the right amount of ice to sustain global civilization is due in large part to the India-Asia slam. I believe this epic tectonic movement supports the idea that God designed Earth specifically for humanity.
Earth’s Third Pole
After the sea-gap between India and Asia closed 23 million years ago, the ensuing upheaval formed the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau (see figure 3). Recent discovery and dating of fossil palm leaves on the Tibetan Plateau establish that its elevation had to be lower than 2,300 meters above sea level 25 million years ago3. Today, the Tibetan Plateau is slightly larger than 2,500,000 square kilometers (1,000,000 square miles) with an average elevation of 4,600 meters (15,100 feet),4 making it the largest and highest elevation plateau in Earth’s history.
The Tibetan Plateau possesses the planet’s third largest store of ice (after Antarctica and Greenland) and is sometimes referred to as Earth’s third pole. Because temperatures drop an average of 6.5°C per 1,000 meters of elevation (3.5°F per 1,000 feet), the Tibetan Plateau is more than cold enough for permanent glaciers and ice fields to form there. The plateau’s low latitude (26–40°) makes it four times more efficient at reflecting sunlight than ice and snow over Antarctica or northern Greenland (see figure 2).
The rapid and dramatic uplift caused by the India-Asia collision also greatly enhanced silicate weathering in that region. High precipitation rates from monsoons coming from the north Indian Ocean contributed to the enhancement as well.
Silicates, which are metallic elements chemically bonded to silicon trioxide (SiO3), comprise nearly all of Earth’s landmasses. Liquid water acts as a catalyst to facilitate a chemical reaction that takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to transform the silicates into carbonates and sand (SiO2). The steeper and the more rugged the landmasses, such as in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, the greater the silicate surface area exposed to precipitation and, thus, the more carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.
Since carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, its removal from the atmosphere contributes to global cooling. And global cooling, in turn, provides the conditions for an ice age cycle. Without the uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau there would be no ice age cycle and, as I explain in Improbable Planet,5 global high-technology civilization would not exist.
The India-Asia pileup not only set the stage for an ice age cycle, but it also helped fine-tune the duration of warm interglacial periods. In three previous blog posts (here, here, and here), I explain how a 40-parts-per-million drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels played a crucial role in transitioning the warm interglacials from a 2,000–3,000-year duration to a 9,000–12,000-year duration. Scientists’ search for the sources of this level drop revealed several options, but all had a low probability of adding up to the 40-parts-per-million. The enhanced silicate weathering that resulted from the India-Asia tectonic upheaval removed enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to easily account for the difference.
Fine-Tuned Tectonic Movements
The collision between Asia and the Indian subcontinent was (and is) a violent event. If it were an unguided collision, then we would expect the results to be much like those of a car wreck: ill-timed and catastrophic. Yet the India-Asia collision bears the hallmarks of perfect fine-tuning. It occurred at the right time and right velocity to ensure the formation of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. It also cooled the planet enough to make possible an ice age cycle. Further uplift of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau lengthened the duration of the interglacials in the ice age cycle. The combination of the ice age cycle and long duration interglacials made possible our global high-technology civilization and a human population that numbers several billion. I believe this event is best interpreted as God’s supernatural handiwork for the specific benefit of humanity.
- About 100 million years ago the Indian subcontinent separated from Madagascar and, 75 million years ago, began racing northward toward Asia at the astoundingly rapid velocity of 20 centimeters (8 inches) per year. Geophysicists consider 4 centimeters per year to be especially rapid.
- Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 203–4.
- T. Su et al., “No High Tibetan Plateau until the Neogene,” Science Advances 5 (March 6, 2019), id. eaav2189, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aav2189.
- Chengshan Wang et al., “Outward-Growth of the Tibetan Plateau during the Cenozoic: A Review,” Tectonophysics 621 (May 7, 2014): 1–43, doi:10.1016/j.tecto.2014.01.036; Joel E. Saylor et al., “Topographic Growth of the Jishi Shan and Its Impact on Basin and Hydrology Evolution, NE Tibetan Plateau,” Basin Research 30, no. 3 (June 2018): 544–63, doi:10.1111/bre.12264; Xiao-Dian Jiang and Zheng-Xiang Li, “Seismic Reflection Data Support Episodic and Simultaneous Growth of the Tibetan Plateau Since 25 Myr,” Nature Communications 5 (November 2014): id. 5453, doi:10.1038/ncomms6453.
- Ross, Improbable Planet, 209–212.
Hugh Ross is founder and senior scholar of Reasons to Believe, an organization dedicated to communicating the compatibility of science and the Christian faith. Hugh holds a degree in physics from the University of British Columbia and a PhD in astronomy from the University of Toronto. After five years on the Caltech faculty, he transitioned to full-time ministry and still serves on the pastoral team at Christ Church Sierra Madre. His writings include journal and magazine articles, hundreds of blogs, and numerous books—The Creator and the Cosmos, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, Improbable Planet and Designed to the Core, among others. He has spoken on hundreds of university campuses as well as at conferences and churches around the world and participates in the weekly Stars, Cells, and God podcast.